In humans, selenium was hypothesized to lower the risk of several chronic diseases, mainly due to the antioxidant activity of selenium-containing proteins. Recent epidemiologic and laboratory studies, however, are changing our perception of the biological effects of this nutritionally essential trace element. We reviewed the most recent epidemiologic and biochemical literature on selenium, synthesizing the findings from these studies into a unifying view. Randomized trials have shown that selenium did not protect against cancer and other chronic diseases, but even increased the risk of specific neoplasms such as advanced prostate cancer and skin cancer, in addition to type 2 diabetes. Biochemical studies indicate that selenium may exert a broad pattern of toxic effects at unexpectedly low concentrations. Furthermore, its upregulation of antioxidant proteins (selenium-dependent and selenium-independent) may be a manifestation of self-induced oxidative stress. In conclusion, toxic effects of selenium species occur at lower concentrations than previously believed. Those effects may include a large range of proteomic changes and adverse health effects in humans. Since the effects of environmental exposure to this element on human health still remain partially unknown, but are potentially serious, the toxicity of selenium exposure should be further investigated and considered as a public health priority.
Keywords: biochemistry; cancer; epidemiology; human health; selenium.